Genealogy Jazz

There’s a school of thought that some genealogists take themselves entirely too seriously and are so bogged down in research details, citations, and definitions that they wouldn’t see John Smith in the 1850 census if the name was written in block letters on the first page of the township where he lived his entire life.

There’s another school of thought that some genealogists do not take themselves seriously enough and do slipshod work and have no hope of researching any family that’s not been already well-documented back to Adam and Eve.

The reality is that some genealogy problems are easy to solve regardless of the researcher’s skill level. Others are difficult and require research experience, knowledge from several disciplines, and complex analysis. Many genealogy problems fall in the range of these extremes. It is possible for problems to be so difficult that experienced researchers can’t solve them and for others to be so easy that getting it wrong would be difficult.

Genealogy is like music. People play it at all levels and can be reasonably good at a given level. If one want to play professionally, their skills and technique will have to be practiced, refined, and improved. What worked in the high school concert band might not cut it any more. If I was able to muddle through concert band, I’ll probably have to up my game to go to the next level. And if I want to play in some sort of jazz combo that requires improvisational skills, I’ll have to learn some scales and chords whether I want to or not.

It’s not elitist to tell me that I need to learn chords if I want to play in the combo. It is elitist to tell me I can’t play because I learned my chords at Podunk University instead of Ivy League U. Chords are chords after all, and if I know them, I know them.

And it appears to me that is where the problem rests for the two genealogy schools. Some members of the serious school go to great pains to let others know that they are members of the serious school and that only members of the serious school can practice genealogy. And some members of the non-serious school go to great pains so say that they are “just researching for fun.”

“Researching for fun” is not a problem as long as we tell our ancestor’s stories as accurately as we can. We owe it to our ancestors to record their existence in a way that is faithful and consistent with the information we have discovered. The “non-serious” crowd owe themselves and others at least that much.

The “serious” crowd has a responsibility as well. Instead of simply telling members of the “non-serious” school that they are doing it wrong, demonstrate those times where some of the skills of the “serious” school may help them solve their problems. Show them how thinking about sources and being aware of methodology can sometimes move their research along or how errors can be made when one is not careful. Keep in mind that there are many problems that don’t require the “serious” school approach to solve.

Most members of the “serious” school even have problems they solved early in their research when they were using “non-serious” skills.

It’s not using “serious” skills that is the problem. It’s how those skills are demonstrated to others that sometimes is.


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